When the District creates a unit of affordable housing, it usually has some length of time—or even indefinite time—over which it can’t be sold for much more than the original purchase price. The idea is simple: Once someone is done with a unit she bought with a public subsidy, someone else should be able to buy it at a similar price, preserving some affordability in a city that’s rapidly losing it.
Housing advocates, though, don’t have their usual level of sympatico on this one. Councilmember Michael Brown thinks it may be time to start thinking about potentially altering the rules a bit, and convened a roundtable in the Wilson Building last week to talk it over.
“Very rarely do you see the advocates split,” Brown said. “Not that you guys have to say kumbaya all the time. I find it interesting that there seems to be some disagreement on this particular issue.”
The session kicked off with two residents of Kenyon Square, who bought affordable units included in the Columbia Heights condo building under the District’s Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) law. Sharon Pinnock paid $213,000 for her unit soon after the building came online, and the market value has increased to $285,000 over three years. But because IZ units must stay affordable for the entire lifespan of the development, she can’t resell it for much more than what she paid (City Paper wrote about another resident in the same situation last November). Meanwhile, condo fees keep increasing, which—added to the mortgage payments—left Pinnock feeling duped.
“It’s predatory, and downright evil,” she said of the affordability restriction. “It takes individuals and places them in a more organized poverty.” Pinnock even says she knows other affordable dwelling unit owners at Kenyon Square who may even have to sell their units and go back to renting.
The D.C. Building Industry Association agrees—they started advocating for relaxed affordability restrictions almost as soon as the IZ rule was enacted. So does affordable housing developer Manna, Inc., which sent several high-ranking staff members to make the case against long-term affordability restrictions.
According to Rozanne Look, the organization’s director of project management, adding any kind of resale restrictions to a development makes banks leery of financing them. Potential financiers might look past them for something in a hot neighborhood like Columbia Heights, but in a place like Ivy City, she said, such restrictions could be more of a hindrance to affordable housing than a help.
Instead of keeping affordable housing units affordable forever, said Manna founder Jim Dickerson, the focus should be a “recycle-recapture” approach, in which any subsidies used to build an affordable unit later sold at market rate would be refunded to the government for more new housing. It’s not free money for poor people, the Manna emissaries argued: Everyone who buys an affordable unit eventually pays back the subsidy. After that, they should be able to reap the benefits of an improving real estate market as much as anyone else.
On the other side of the spectrum is the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which maintains that D.C.’s affordable housing stock is dwindling so quickly that every unit counts. Reiterating the conclusions of a 2006 study, Director Ed Lazere said that homeowners could be allowed to build some equity, while keeping the unit available for future low-income buyers—which is only what the original beneficiary should owe for the city’s help.
“It is a gift,” Lazere says. “I don’t see why they should get the double benefit of full equity appreciation.”
The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless strongly agreed. The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development was more moderate in its support, emphasizing the importance of transparency and education. The national Center for Housing Policy also argued that over the long term, as land prices rise, resale restrictions are much more effective in preserving affordability than other tools like grants and forgivable loans.
At the end of the hearing, Councilmember Brown seemed inclined to set up a task force to look more carefully at whether the regulations should be revised, so look out for more action on this in the months to come.